Ain’t no fanatic like a religious fanatic, ’cause religion, that’s some crazy sh*t.
A fairly obvious attempt at blending Herschell Gordon Lewis’ later efforts and classic New York sexploitation with then-trendy television cop show dynamics and some elements of blaxploitation cinema, Massage Parlor Murders comes off as an interesting amalgam. While its intentions are written in broad strokes and large burning letters across the wall (‘mene mene tekel upharsin’, presumably), the end result is all of that and less.
In essence, the film can be best described as a cross between a typical Something Weird film, Code Red’s Mardi Gras Massacre and an early Andy Milligan sexploiter, with touches of the earlier mentioned stylistic elements daubed in for highlights and contrast. While not exactly a failed experiment, it becomes something of an entity (and genre) unto itself, a strange little viper slithering its way back to light from the rubble of a bygone era of what time and time again have been shown to be far more interesting times than the ones we reside in.
The only really notable cast member is Chris Jordan, partner of porn legend Eric Edwards and veteran of numerous superior Joe Sarno films of the era (most notably Confessions of a Young American Housewife), Roberta Findlay’s sombre the Clamdigger’s Daughter and Code Red’s Teenage Hitchhikers – a cute and perky tomboyish blonde who I’ve always found inexplicably quite attractive in looks and demeanor. While there are one or two other recognizable faces peppering the cast, the film is primarily made up of a number of somewhat skanky but still attractive mid 70’s types and a whole lot of unknowns.
I tackled the extras first, so we’ll start from there and work our way back to the film proper.
First, the package. It’s once again delivered in a DVD/Blu Ray combo pack, which always baffle me, as if you do have Blu capability, it’s reasonably doubtful that you’d ever want to check out the downgraded version; and if you don’t by now, you likely have no interest in upgrading. Two different markets, which you’d think would demand two different package releases. But hey, that’s just me being logical again – not really an issue, more of a general statement of disbelief and head scratching at the apparent growing popularity of the dual-format release.
Once again, we’re given a copy of a timing card from the workprint, and booklet length essay, which proves to be somewhat rambling and off-topic this time around (there appears to be a major focus on porno magazines of the era and the dawn of the massage parlor, with an overabundance of history on non-directorial pursuits of the directors and miscellaneous and inconsequential extranea. If you were dying to hear a long and boring dissertation about sordid “detective magazines”, paperbacks written by and about hooking, and articles from vintage porn mags, you’ve come to the right place).
Nonetheless, there are a few pertinent factoids to be found amidst all the blather, and he does make a point which can’t be stressed enough – that American Puritanism is far sicker and more twisted with its “acceptable” bloodlust than the healthy sex drive it continues to demonize and condemn. And for those, at least, I am thankful.
There are a good 10 minutes worth of outtakes, which include a scene in what appears from descriptions to be a sort of Plato’s retreat indoor swimming pool or (straight orientation) bathhouse, which comes complete with the absurdist touch of a chubby Asiatic type in a sarong twirling a fiery baton (!) while a seedy looking Nina Blackwood type gets felt up by some schlub with a partial woody. We also get a whole bunch of street scenes presumably “ruined” by Jimmie (“Dy-no-mite!”) Walker types giving some impromptu hails to the camera crew.
The original trailer plays up the murders and cop show angle, but I far preferred the “Massage Parlor Hookers” re-release trailer, which obviously emphasized the sex angle (good GOD, that @$$ on Chris Jordan…)
The menu would seem to indicate that it comes with both the original cut and the re-release version, but it’s something of a bait and switch. It’s actually the exact same print, with the original “Massage Parlor Murders” title card – the only difference is whether you start at chapter 1 or chapter 2 of the film (!)
That noted, it could make for a very different viewing experience, as the tone of the film is altered considerably by the presence (or absence) of this ridiculous and inconsequential scene as the literal starting point of the film.
With no preface, the picture kicks off with a really cute and very leggy Hispanic type (Anne Gaybis) having a session with a rather geekish and pudgy Yiddish fellow (co-director Chester Fox, in a bizarre and lengthy cameo), which revolves around her continually negotiating extra $20s out of the penny pinching nebbish before he suddenly (and rather surprisingly, for this sort of picture) bows out nervously, right before the expected denouement of the buildup. Picture it as an extended borscht belt skit version of an Ernie Kovacs gag – that banana peel is right there prominently underfoot, but nobody seems to want to step on it…
It’s a silly and fairly pointless scene that may have provided a bit of brief levity somewhere more to the middle of the film, but as an opener? It’s quite easy to see why it was cut for the re-release, and I find myself surprised it was ever even included in the picture. I’d have expected to find something like this as a rediscovered outtake rather than a preface to the opening credits!
As mentioned earlier on, Massage Parlor Murders shares a number of similarities with the amusing mess that is Mardi Gras Massacre: not only in terms of the setting and thrust (pardon the metaphor) of a killer stalking hookers and sex industry denizens, but in the conceit that the leading cop has a relationship with one of the ladies in question (in this case, the quickly dispatched and surprisingly unlisted in the opening credits Chris Jordan).
After said “officer of the law” Lieutenant Jimmy Rosetti (George Spencer) concludes an offscreen liason with little blonde spitfire “Rosie” (Jordan), we are treated to a lengthy section of inexplicable cross-cutting between his painfully slow drive around town in a (very) beat up old Plymouth and the girls sitting bored in the lobby of the titular establishment, awaiting johns. Now, mind you, this doesn’t happen only once, to establish some sort of mise en scene or timeline – rather, the (decided lack of) action cuts back and forth from one static scenario to the other several times (!)
Eventually Rosetti finally arrives home to his shrewish and somewhat homely wife, who later harangues him about how he’s “only upset about the murders because all those prostitutes are getting punished …what about all the good people…the church people, when they get mugged and robbed?”. At least he has decent taste in decor, inclusive of a large brick fireplace, hanging plants and cherry wood cabinetry…
No sooner has Rosetti settled in than some unseen john shows at the same massage parlor he just left, chooses Jordan and proceeds to immediately smash her face against the full body length mirror, ala Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Gore Gore Girls (but with far less gruesomeness). Rosetti’s partner, “Hot Lips” Danny O’Mara (John Moser) pays a visit to Rosie’s roommate and fellow sex worker, Gwen (a far pudgier and worn looking Sandra Peabody than the one who apeared with Jordan in the earlier Teenage Hitchhikers), who mentions a “Mr. Creepy”, a regular client that weirded her out but paid well.
Off our intrepid coppers go in pursuit, which ends with a sucker punch to the rather large gut of the titular personage (one George Dzunda, who the booklet makes a big hash over, but whose name means little or nothing to my own filmic experience and focus). Meantime, another seedy looking cutie (Ariana Blue, who looks a hell of a lot like one of the lesbians from Roberta Findlay’s Altar of Lust) gets strangled and has what appears to be honey (but which we’re told is “acid”) poured over her by the real killer…but then she clearly blinks (in closeup, yet!*) when the cops arrive to check out the scene…
*This seems to be something of a recurrent theme, as the next victim, discovered about 48 minutes in, quite clearly looks off to the right of the screen when the detectives are inspecting her. Perhaps Massage Parlor Lazarus might have been a better title, considering all the rather lively corpses strewn throughout its running time…
Highlights of the whole affair include a ridiculous chase scene through what appears to be the terrain beneath the Harlem River Drive, which begins with “”Hot Lips” running out of the bathhouse clad only in a towel and hijacking a cab from a reluctant old school cabbie (in the days before that profession became the province of an almost exclusively Middle Eastern and Indian population), who actually gets into a struggle and fistfight with the cop right in the middle of the street over it. Now THAT’S the New York I remember…
We get a crazy little monologue from crackpot local “Brother Theodore” Gottlieb (more or less playing himself), who may have singlehandedly inspired Richard Metzger’s Disinformation (and in fact does appear therein), and “Hot Lips” goes on a date with Rosie’s roomie Gwen, wherein he tries to express his concerns about her choice of profession:
“aren’t you ever worried? Guys with all kinds of hangups. Freaks who wanna ball you. Do all kinds of weird things!”
to which she makes some truly credulity straining defenses thereof:
“I get paid as much for being a shrink as anything else…besides, how dangerous can you be when you’ve got your pants down, right?”
before ending the evening with an incredibly long and boring love scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a chick flick melodrama of the era.
Our third group of Massage Parlor Hookers consists of 3 amazingly ugly women (a moon faced yenta who spends her time knitting and grousing about her tricks, a freakish looking old bit of Eurotrash who has the air of transgendered about her, and the sort of low rent crack whore who may actually have worked at one of these establishments in real life) and one cute Portugese (Mercedes Ragusa), who of course winds up being the next victim. You have to wonder about the killers in this sort of picture – you’d think they could perform a public service by redirecting their celluloid rage against the ugly, obnoxious and overweight instead of the attractive and likeable for a change…
In fact, I’m starting a petition right now. Attention all filmic serial killers: your chance to do the viewing public and world at large a favor in the working out of your twisted personal issues! Your target: the obnoxious, the vapid, and the generally repulsive, both physically and in persona…start with modern day Hollywood, and have yourself a ball!
Lt. Rosetti finally breaks the case while attending a hellfire and brimstone sermon at the local Catholic church, whose blathering on about the seven deadly sins clicks in his head – “he’s a religious nut…he’s sending these girls to hell!”. Dragging old “Hot Lips” over to the local bookstore, he grabs a book on the subject (sure to be on the bestseller list!), quickly reads them off (exclaiming “aah, I don’t know what the hell half of these things are!”), then rushes off to find yet another cameo victim covered in ketchup and honey.
The film ends as it (at least in the longer “original release version”) began, with Gaybis starting a session with a creepy Liberace type who hands her a wad of cash, intoning “Do you want it? It’s yours…I want you to put it inside of you!”. “You wanna watch?” she asks, gamely, while he pulls out the gloves. She throws a bowl of liquid in his face, and somehow he gets set on fire, just as the cops arrive. There’s an even longer and more annoying looped scream than Celtic Frost used on “Into Crypts of Rays”, an awful poem appears onscreen (supposedly from the imaginary “Hymn of the Cabal”), and abbreviated credits roll.
With an incredibly funky mid seventies soundtrack (one can only hope some enterprising label puts out a copy of this one) and the same grubby lower west side brownstone apartments as latter day Doris Wishman efforts Love Toy and The Amazing Transplant, Massage Parlor Murders is marked by a very similar aesthetic and visual palette to those two films.
Featuring some great views of the Deuce in its heyday, complete with gay leathermen, handoff deals, and the long row of theaters showing the sort of fare cineastes of the era would be unlikely to ever see outside of the infamous thoroughfare of 42nd and Broadway, the unspoken focus of the whole venture is its status as a love letter (or perhaps poison pen letter) to the inimitable Times Square. For denizens of these cinemas, likely viewing this film in one of the very same dilapidated movie houses on display herein, it must have lent a hallucinatory air of metafiction to the whole affair…
Vinegar Syndrome does as good a job as possible given the age and likely neglect of this urban oddity. Lower lit indoor scenes like the ones set in the bathhouse are marked by an amazing level of grain, reminiscent of UHF signal reception back in the days before cable, but exteriors and better lit interiors are vibrant and strong, making the film a sickly delight for the eyes on a positively Des Essentesian level.
The sort of oddity most veteran cinephiles would have assumed forever lost to time if they’d been aware of its existence in the first place, Massage Parlor Murders falls firmly into the milieu formerly covered exclusively by Code Red and Something Weird – a grotty, no-budget regional softcore/horror hybrid unlikely to play outside its given demographic of the seedy inner city grindhouse cinema.
Evocative of the decadent glories of a menacing but colorful New York City long lost to Republican-led gentrification (Rosetti’s wife would have LOVED Rudy Giuliani) and corporate takeover (this ain’t the middle American thoroughfare Times Square of Disney or the East Village of Starbucks and Baby Gap, kiddies), the film exudes a sleazy feel from start to finish, with its faded day-glo pastel walls and grainy print whose damages related to time and neglect have not been entirely removed by Vinegar Syndrome’s admirable rescue operation and attempted cleanup. You literally feel like you should be watching this in some dingy basement or back room speakeasy, complete with sticky floors and shifty if not dangerous fellow patrons.
While hardly the revelatory rescue and restoration effort their earlier Lost Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis was, Vinegar Syndrome is to be commended for continuing to unearth and bring back to some level of vibrant afterlife these sort of long lost obscurities from what in a lot of ways were much better days…and in other ways, far worse ones. Kudos once again. Massage Parlor Murders comes quite recommended for fans of grindhouse sleaze.